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Certaldo, Italy

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From “Positano,” a 1953 article by John Steinbeck:

About ten years ago a Moslem came to Positano, liked it and settled. For a time he was self-supporting but gradually he ran out of assets and still he stayed. The town supported him and took care of him. Just as the mayor was their only Communist, this was their only Moslem. They felt that he belonged to them. Finally he died and his only request was that he might be buried with his feet toward Mecca. And this, so Positano thought, was done. Four years later some curious meddler made a discovery. The Moslem had been buried by dead reckoning and either the compass was off or the map was faulty. He had been buried 28 degrees off course. This was outrageous to a seafaring town. The whole population gathered, dug the Moslem up, put him on course and covered him up again.

This tale of an outsider being embraced is very resonant to me, as I’m always outside of everywhere, even my birthplace. Living in Saigon from 1999 to 2001, I was often mistaken for a Taiwanese, simply because I was fatter and lighter than the locals, and my body language was different. I planted my feet too far apart, rarely leaned against anything and never squatted.

Steinbeck’s account is also close to home because my wife and I spent two years in Italy. Our stay in Certaldo, population 16,000, was the happiest of our lives. Although Vietnamese, we were a part of that town and, further, felt more embraced by the earth and time. History snuggled us. Certaldo’s walls of bricks from different centuries, stones and mortar immemorial reminded us, daily, that humanity endures and remembers.

Sort of.

A mere block from our apartment was the Boccaccio House. I had read the 14th century author in college, back when a higher education meant trying to acquire as wide a historical and geographical perspective as possible. Now, it’s militant solipsism. Restored in the 19th century, the Boccaccio House was destroyed by an American bomb in WWII, then rebuilt again. His tomb lies in a church thirty yards down Giovanni Boccaccio Street. In spite of the solemn inscription, “Han sub mole iacent cineres ac ossa Iohannis,” Boccaccio’s bones aren’t beneath, but dug up and tossed away in 1783. Lord Byron lamented this desecration in 1818, “even his tomb / Uptorn, must bear the hyaena bigot’s wrong.”

Everywhere, there were sights to contemplate. One September, we looked out our kitchen window to see the glass coffin of Beatific Giulia riding by as she made her annual trip down the hill, carried on the shoulders of townspeople. When Giulia died in 1367, church bells pealed by themselves, Certaldesi claim, but this is also said of Saint Verdiana of nearby Castelfiorentino, and of Saint Fina and Beatific Vivaldo of San Gimignano, that hilltop town of many towers, visible from our bedroom window.

Certaldo is the setting for but one story in the Decameron, with its population depicted as simpletons foolish enough to be tricked by a glib talking Friar Cipolla, or Brother Onion, a nod to Certaldo’s most famous produce. Only one Certaldese is described in detail, “a stocky kitchen-maid, who was plump and coarse and bowlegged, with a pair of paps like a couple of dung-baskets and a face like Baronci, her skin plastered in sweat, grease and soot” [translated by G.H. McWilliam]. Ah, but it’s good to be immortalized by your most celebrated son! I saw this story dramatized in Certaldo.

Stories must be swapped and retold, for without memory, a man or community is nothing. Visiting Certaldo in the 1830’s, Frenchman Antoine Claude Pasquin reported, “the inhabitants, dealers in wood and charcoal as in Boccaccio’s time, are still exactly like those he so humorously describes, agiati (at their ease); and the taste for hearing and telling stories continues popular in the country.”

The truth is, story telling was an enjoyable compulsion wherever people gathered, but this most human of impulses has been nearly snuffed out in this age of television, recorded music and, more recently, smart phones. Now, we mostly fling crude fragments of stories at each other. If texted, they are perforce illiterate and incoherent. Even face-to-face, we often have to scream to barely rise above the percussive thumps, guitar snarls and rapped obscenities.

With no large streets, vast parking lots or huge shopping malls, 21st century Certaldo retains its human scale. We walked everywhere. Each evening, hundreds of people gathered in Piazza Boccaccio, in front of the town hall, just to stroll, sit on the church steps, say hello or chat with their neighbors. Teenagers flirted, kids played. Under a clump of trees across from the ice cream parlor, old men in rumpled suits relaxed. A flaxen haired girl picked up a large, dry leaf, and that was her toy for the evening.

At first, I assumed that everyone but my wife and I was Italian, but soon enough, I saw, or was told, that there were Albanian, Moroccan and even Sri Lankan immigrants among the locals. We knew a Chinese family ran the Hong Kong clothing shop, but we never saw them. At Pizzeria Cavour, the cashier was a Chinese teenager. Even now, I can hear her clear, crisp command, “Dimmi!”

Among the pizza toppings, one could choose hotdog, and at Finn Mac Cool Irish Pub, there was a Confederate flag with a death figure brandishing a bloody knife and “THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN.” Other signs of American culture included Mormon missionaries who rang our bell one evening, kids trick o’ treating and, of course, American music on the radio. At a local festival, a teenage singer sang R.E.M. with the help of a lyric sheet.


Certaldesi needed few pretexts to get together. There were several festivals, a huge communal meal, political dinners and a fashion show featuring locals modeling clothes from the town’s shops. Seeing a flyer for a walking club at the supermarket, my wife and I decided to join. Paying modest fees, we took several bus trips to nearby towns, where everyone walked around for a couple of hours then had a drawn out meal together. Wine would be poured, and songs would pour forth. More than sightseeing or exercising, socializing was the real purpose, obviously, for there was no reason why each participant couldn’t just drive the relatively short distance to wherever we were going.

At Piazza Boccaccio one afternoon, I saw two of the organizers of the walking club. Smiling, they asked if my wife and I were coming to the next gathering. The plan was not even to squeeze onto a bus, but merely meet at some field just outside of town to gaze at stars.

“No,” I shook my head. “It’s just outside of town.” I grinned.

Frowning somewhat, one of the men explained, “Going somewhere is not why we do this!”

As with so much else, seeing each other face-to-face to share stories was the real reason.

Dodging the Black Death, the Decameron’s narrators told wise and amusing stories to affirm life. In the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade had to keep inventing stories to prolong her own life. Without meaningful stories, a culture is more or less dead. What stories do we have besides the stultifying fantasies and vapid fables force fed to us endlessly by the suited hyenas?

To not be able to tell and hear stories is torture. In Philadelphia, my home, solitary confinement was equated with penitence. Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, Charles Dickens reported, “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment [solitary confinement], prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature.” While not technically in solitary confinement, too many of us are solitary enough. Seeing nothing but ourselves, photographing mostly ourselves, we rage at others for not admiring us.

If small town Italy had such an ideal human arrangement, why would anyone ever leave? To make money, of course. My best friend in Certaldo was Niccolo, and I’m still in touch with him more than a decade later. Niccolo left Certaldo even before I did. A sommelier, he found a job in Japan, and has been there since 2003, working first for an Italian restaurant, then as a breakfast manager at a large hotel. Six years ago, Niccolo confided that he yearned to return to Certaldo to become a yoga teacher, but that plan has been scrapped, since the Italian economy has been sinking ever lower. Niccolo’s sister has emigrated to Germany.

Six months ago, Niccolo asked me to proofread his resume so he could apply for a job in Taiwan. Truly brilliant, Niccolo can speak, read and write English, French, Spanish and Japanese, and get by in German. Nearly forty, Niccolo must think he can learn Chinese too.

A broken economy destroys communities. War, too, obviously. This world will be increasingly immersed in both.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Immigration, Italy 
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  1. Ivy says:

    Your writing evokes happy times in Italy and elsewhere.
    Buon viaggio.

    p.s., Loved the phrase about higher education now being militant solipsism

  2. gruff says:

    A nourishing read.

    Seeing nothing but ourselves, photographing mostly ourselves, we rage at others for not admiring us.

    A lot of public agitation in the US – protests and whatnot – seem to me to be expressions at least partly of personal psychological deficiencies wrought by atomization and mass society. Americans suffer a heart illness without even knowing they’re sick. And the germ seems to be catching.

    • Replies: @Brohemius
    , @JackOH
  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:


    Marina Warner mentions the ‘giant monuments from the Soviet dictatorship’ retired to ‘Memento Park’ in Budapest (Letters, 21 April). A few years ago the mayor of Porto Empedocle, the Sicilian town where Pirandello was born, was under pressure to put up a monument honouring the great playwright. But there was no money. During a trip to a ‘twinned’ town somewhere in Ukraine, the mayor noticed that many statues had been discarded on the ground; they represented a man with a bald head and slanted eyes, peculiarly similar to Pirandello’s. So he asked whether he could buy one. ‘As many as you please,’ was the answer: there was nothing to pay. The mayor couldn’t believe his luck. Thus, after a few adjustments here and there, Lenin’s stone face became Pirandello’s. And so far as I know there he now stands, on the main square of a town which not long ago voted 92 per cent for Berlusconi.

    Gaia Servadio
    London SW1

    London Review of Books, 2 June 2016

  4. Brohemius says:

    I think TV is one of the primary causes of this “heart illness”. The Internet, by contrast, offers two-way communication, and the possibility of building some sort of community.

    • Replies: @woodNfish
  5. JackOH says:

    Reminded me of my visits to Europe from the 1960s through the 1990s. Charming, prosperous, temperate in manner, although I hope my memory isn’t tricking me. Never got to Italy, though.

    FWIW-there’s an Alfred de Zayas, a retired UN lawyer, who’s done a lot of work on establishing a legal basis for the right to a homeland.

    Your jabs at American popular culture and its drummers (“suited hyenas”) are spot on. I happen to like popular culture, mostly, but I don’t like that a lot of folks take it to be something opposed to or separate from our deeper culture. The two performances of traditional patriotic music I heard around Memorial Day were well-attended and well-received, so I may be overdoing it.

    “A broken economy destroys communities.” Yep. My own metro area is economically shattered, psychologically fractured. Ugly.

  6. JackOH says:

    “Americans suffer a heart illness without even knowing they’re sick. And the germ seems to be catching.”

    Yep, agree 100%.

  7. Rehmat says:

    Linh Dinh – I got a better story for you.

    Mayor Arturo Cerulli of Tuscan seaside community of Monte Argentario, a White Catholic, who converted to Islam 27 years ago has come under wrath of Jewish Lobby for refusing to accept nearly 200 non-White refugees, fearing that it would have a negative effect on municipality’s 13,000 White population and island’s popular tourist industry.

    “We don’t want refugees here, we don’t have the facility for them. We don’t know where to put them, we don’t know what to do with them,” Jewish newspaper The Jewish ‘Local’ quoted Cerulli saying in August 2015.

    • Replies: @Sherman
  8. Sherman says:

    Hey Homer

    I guess even Muslims don’t want to live with other Muslims if they had the choice.


    • Replies: @Rehmat
  9. mh505 says:

    @Laurence May

    That’s a real funny story. Is it true?

    • Replies: @David
    , @aandrews
  10. David says:

    It’s true that it’s in LRB.

    And Gaia appears to be a real person. Her web site:

  11. aandrews says:

    “A Baroque Lenin website attests that ‘… it is clear from the [] article this strange trip to Russia (transformed into the Ukraine much later) was purely in the imagination of the writer who found the Pirandello statue ridiculous. A pity, but as they say, ‘Se non e’ Vero, a ben travato….’

    “Loosely translated, ‘It may not be true, but it’s a good story.’”

  12. Sean says:

    Running on loans from French backs it cannot pay back and in consequence propped up by the German taxpayer to keep France afloat, Italy is indeed an ostensibly unstable country., but it still flys; as long as the ordinary Germans are willing to keep lending (or rather giving) the PIGs money to buy the products and boost the of German business, it always will.


    In the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade had to keep inventing stories to prolong her own life. Without meaningful stories, a culture is more or less dead. What stories do we have besides the stultifying fantasies and vapid fables force fed to us endlessly by the suited hyenas

    Italy is a place where people who should know better believe the most fantastic stories, like they did about Andreotti and Amanda Knox.

  13. Rehmat says:

    Hey Bib – same goes for your pro-Nazi tribe. When was the last time you spoke to an Israeli-Ethiopian Jew?

    In Israel, hatred toward Black people is based on the color of skin and not on being non-Jewish. Take for example, Ethiopian Falasha Jews, who were flown into Israel from Ethiopia and Sudan over 23 years ago with great fanfare – as a “Jewish humanitarian” gesture, are now being treated like untouchable in the Zionist entity.

    • Replies: @woodNfish
  14. Rehmat says:

    Linh Dinh – In case you didn’t know the first batch of Muslims arrived Italy in 878 CE and they established a Muslim state in Sicily which lasted until 1072 CE.

    “Both Milan and Venice were thriving commercial cities, thriving entirely from trade with Saracens. In fact the whole Renaissance, the “revival of learning in Europe”, inexplicably “arose” in Italy, that long, narrow peninsula with Saracen civilization brilliant at its tip, and its every port opening to the Saracens’ Sea,” – American journalist and author, Rose Wilder Lane, in “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom”.

    • Replies: @Cobbett
    , @SolontoCroesus
  15. Art says:

    Most enjoyable – thanks much – Art

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Man, I need to get back to Bella Italia, my second home. Lived in Rome in ’73. Bliss it was, my friend. Florence in ’79 and ’82, still great but the tourist hordes were coming and Arab students flooded the universities, bringing an air of menace. Read Boccaccio hard during a junior year abroad, the school was steps from Dante Alighieri’s house (via S. Margherita). My Italian prof. said I wrote Italian in the style of Boccaccio, imitation being my best flattery. I do miss the language, Italians talk better than just about anybody, with more flair certainly, if not substance. Thanks for taking me back.

  17. Cobbett says:

    So fucking what? They’re nothing now.

  18. mh505 says:

    @david & @aandrews

    “It may not be true, but it’s a good story”

    Agree; a very good story – especially for me as an old “Russia hand” 🙂

  19. @Rehmat

    Yet it was the Greeks that Italian scholars translated and drew fully into the Italian intellectual landscape of the Renaissance. Muslims may have been brokers, but it was Greek culture that was purveyed.

    As well, Crusades in opposition to Muslims gave major boosts to the enrichment of Genoa, Pisa, and other Italian city-states and their family dynasties.

  20. woodNfish says:

    …without memory, a man or community is nothing.

    The truth is, story telling was an enjoyable compulsion wherever people gathered, but this most human of impulses has been nearly snuffed out in this age of television, recorded music and, more recently, smart phones. Now, we mostly fling crude fragments of stories at each other.

    A broken economy destroys communities.

    So much truth here – an excellent article!

  21. woodNfish says:

    Oh get over yourself. Prejudice is part of the natural state of being human. People naturally want to be with their own kind. That is just the way it is.

  22. woodNfish says:

    The internet may be two-way, but it is also anonymous resulting in people acting and saying things they would never say to your face or in a group. So in that sense the internet is both good and bad.

  23. JackOH says:

    I didn’t spend enough time in Europe to judge how politics there affected day-to-day life. Some stuff was obvious: good public transit, some sort of national health scheme, compact cities that were easily walked or bicycled, plenty of consumption taxes. I do recall, I think, that newspaper articles about politics may have been a little higher-toned than in the States. I did get the unconfirmed impression that European folks at lower income levels could maintain a decent life, whereas in my low-cost area you need a sort of minimum threshold income for a car and an apartment in a safe neighborhood.

    I’m guessing that expertise in Europe informed policy decisions more so than in the States, but I don’t have good examples. My impression is that American policies are so heavily politicized, that expertise may not even matter much. Congress wants to reward or appease certain constituencies for reasons that may be clear or not, and the Devil take the hindmost.

  24. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:


    from an Italian living in Italy, thanks.

    I have noticed that the more economically and technologically developed a place becomes, the less beautiful it gets to live in.
    Humans have become far more technologically able than it would have been good for them too, haven’t they?

    One can hardly think of a country offering more pleasant landscapes and artistic locales, social life, and food (how came you made no mention of the food?, I wonder) than Italy.
    On the other hand, it lies in deep slumber, has been irrelevant to the world events for at least 2 centuries and a half, and is going to go still behind its current position on the world stage.

    A sleeping beauty.

  25. helena says:

    Is there a simple explanation why Italy eats pasta and pizza?

    I mean, most foods are regional – noodles, rice, potatoes, different meats, things like hummus etc. Italy’s national food – pasta and pizza isn’t; I don’t think they are found in Italy’s neighbouring countries. I know there are some noodles in east europe but that is not the same as the Italian prominence of pasta.

    And ironically, Italy’s isolated diet has become the number one global food.

  26. Linh Dinh says: • Website

    Hi Helena,

    There are pizza variations in nearby countries. In southern Germany, there’s flammkuchen. Made by Alsace Germans, it’s called tarte flambée in France. In Provence, there’s pissaladière, said, probably apocryphally, to be introduced by Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral (born 1466). In Turkey, Armenia and Syria, there’s lahmacun, and Turkish influence is behind the Hungarian lángos. The toppings on a lángos are not baked, however, so it’s not quite a pizza, just stuff on top of a piece of fried flat bread. Flammkuchen and lahmacun are excellent and should be better known.


    • Replies: @helena
  27. helena says:
    @Linh Dinh

    Flammkuchen is plum, right? My girlhood friend’s german mother used to make it, really tasty.

    I’ll have to check out lahmacun and langos. Perhaps those ideas were brought back to Italy during Empire.

    • Replies: @Linh Dinh
  28. Linh Dinh says: • Website

    Hi Helena,

    Flammkuchen is a thin-crusted pizza, topped with sour cream, onions and bacon usually. The version I ate in Leipzig had ham.


  29. martino says:

    fine article, dihn. I am from Barcelona, Spain, another Country inavoidable for the Empire.It only surfaces about theelites-govern forces. People is another thing.Very difficult to handle. We are, italians and spanish very old fox. Italy with the mafia, can avoid all from foreigners. Spain, i dont know, we have no mafia, but we are alot mad- Than you.

  30. martino says:

    the empire, all the previous Empires, always want drestroy the old world. I suffer every day for this.Is only left for us, to cry in a bar BAr… but now THE BAR is under attack also. no smoking is the big tool. This oldest institution for men, besides with family, sons (whom arenow stolen by women), and work,is going destroyed. Is an atack to men,multilayered. At first. (only see the gender ideology, transgender, feminism, homo , etc–) Childrens must now choose his own gender at 8 old. After a brain wash. Women against men.. All is the Divide and win…. I was a bartender, or asisd said here a barman for ten years (amid others multiple jobs from skillfull computer, administration in corporation big industries,Sailor, fisherman, yoga master, plombier, fothografer,… easy all but a road´s bitch..) Was in my barman job where I knew all kinds of storys. Is said that a bartender or a bitch knews more of psicology than an army of psicologists. An that was. The postcards from dihn in a bar, have the worth of a psicologist insight in the state of affairs…than you

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